“I have a feeling that things are starting to come together,” the Duke told Geoffrey. From where he stood at the top of the castle steps, the two of them could see down into the town. The sun was setting, and people were starting to light street lanterns and oil lamps. “It’s like a scene from a fairy tale.” The Duke gestured at the town below.
“It is pretty,” said Geoffrey.
The Duke took a deep breath. “Smell that air. There’s just something about the mountains, combined with the scent of wood smoke, that makes me feel nostalgic.”
“You’ve been here a long time, then?”
“Ages.” The Duke held up a hand and ticked off his fingers. “I bought this place, let’s see, four, no, five weeks ago.” He chuckled. “Time certainly moves differently up here. It feels like I just got to Heartburgh yesterday, but also that I’ve been here for years.”
“You bought the whole town? Five weeks ago?”
“Previous owner couldn’t wait to get out of here,” said Duke. “Everyone told me I was crazy. Putting all my money into some town in the middle of nowhere on lowest-rated world in the metaverse. But look at this place. Everyone’s pulling together. We have an army. A new religion. People are going to start moving in, mark my words. That logistics lady, Hephziba, she told me that we got two new residents today.”
“I think I met both of them,” said Geoffrey.
“They’re staying at the inn right now,” said the Duke. “But they’ll probably be renting houses in no time.” He nodded in the direction of the inn. “Look, the townsfolk are building a bonfire. That’s nice.” He started down the stairs. “Come on, let’s go join them. It’s a nice night for a walk.”
As the two of them approached the main gates, which, as usual, were wide open, Ayoob ran through and stopped, panting, in front them.
“Is the general here?” he asked, after he caught his breath. “We’ve got a situation.”
“Last I saw him, he was arguing with the innkeeper about sandwich making,” said Geoffrey.
Ayoob swore. “I didn’t even think to check inside.” He looked back down the hill. “But we’re going to need some additional manpower, anyway. I’m going to go and get the rest of the soldiers.”
“What’s going on?” asked the Duke.
“Abigail somehow got everyone riled up and now they want to burn a witch,” said Ayoob. “They’re going to burn that new guy, Steuan.”
“Oh, we can’t have that,” said the Duke. “We’ll never be able to attract residents that way.”
“I know.” Ayoob took a deep breath. “It was an accident. Abigail didn’t mean to incite a mob. It just happened.” He shook his head, then ran off around the castle towards the barracks at the back.
The Duke strode off towards in the inn, Geoffrey close behind.
As they got closer, they saw soldiers throwing firewood and bales of hay onto the bonfire while the choir sang, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” and Abigail stood off to the side, wringing her hands. Two other soldiers had Steuan tied up, ignoring his protests. Flame screamed at them to stop, but she could barely even be heard over all the chanting and singing.
Abigail saw them approach. “I swear I didn’t mean for this to happen,” she told them. “It just all got out of hand.”
The Duke walked to the inn’s entrance, where the general was standing next to Bartram and Ermyntrude, watching the fire.
“What is the meaning of this?” the Duke yelled at the general.
“Town spirit?” the general suggested. “Isn’t it nice to see the towns people coming together like this? Our new religion is really catching on.” He chuckled. “It’s really getting people fired up.”
“Well, make them stop,” said the Duke. “I don’t want Heartburgh to be known as the place where visitors get burned at the stake.”
“Are you sure? Maybe we can make an exception for this one guy. He is trying to sell magic potions, you know.”
“I’m selling herbal teas,” Steuan yelled at him. “And natural healing ointments.”
“Witch! Witch!” the soldiers holding him yelled again.
“I’m not a witch,” Steuan yelled back.
“You!” the Duke said, pointing to one of the soldiers holding Steuan. “Tell the choir to stop singing. And you!” He pointed at the other soldier. “Take off those stupid robes.” He turned to the general. “Get your troops under control, Luke. And Geoffrey, untie the man.”
The choir singers quieted down and the soldiers stopped chanting about burning the witch.
“My teas don’t even have any active ingredients,” Steuan complained while Geoffrey grudgingly helped Flame untied the ropes around his wrists.
“I knew it,” said Geoffrey. “You’re a fraud.”
“You don’t understand,” said Steuan. “My treatments are more effective that way.”
“I can’t believe you’re still on this,” said Flame. “How insecure can you be?”
“My treatments allow the body to cure itself,” sad Steuan.
“You mean the placebo effect,” said Geoffrey.
“In the middle ages, it was pretty much the only effective effect,” said Steuan. “Everything else just made patients sicker. At least I’m not going around prescribing bloodletting, trepanation, or mercury.” He rubbed his wrists, now free of the ropes.
Abigail came up to him. “I’m really sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to almost get you burned alive. But you really shouldn’t have been going around telling people you have magical healing powers.”
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t have been telling people you’re the goddess of the mountains,” Steuan said.
“I can see why you might think that,” said Abigail.
Flame took Steuan’s hand. “People just got a little carried away,” she told him. “We’re actually really nice, I swear.” She glared at Geoffrey, the soldiers, and the general. “You people should be ashamed of yourselves,” she said, then pulled Steuan into the inn.
“Well, that didn’t go the way I expected it to,” said the general. He stepped down from the inn’s entrance and ordered the cloaked soldiers to take off their cloaks and resume their regular nightly patrol.
The other onlookers began to disperse or went inside the inn for dinner.
Bartram and Mistress Ermyntrude stepped aside to let people pass.
“Is the show over?” Ermyntrude pouted at Bartram. “Can we go back to shopping?”
“I’ve already bought you everything that Heartburgh had for sale. Unless… would you like a goat?”
“No, I prefer portable gifts,” said Ermyntrude. “Jewelry. Furs. Precious stones.”
“We can go back to the market tomorrow,” said Bartram. “Maybe there will be something else. Meanwhile, let’s get inside, out of the cold.”
“I’d really rather shop,” said Ermyntrude, but followed him in.
By the time Ayoob showed up with reinforcements it was all over.
As the soldiers cleared up the rest of the mess, and the Duke negotiated the damage payment with the innkeeper, the general pulled Geoffrey aside for a quiet word.
“This is all your fault,” he said. “You better fix it.”